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Op-Ed: Liberal arts colleges can be relevant again

Liberal arts colleges are the starting point of America's leadership and relevance in the complex world of global interaction. But more than a decade into this millennium, our schools are no longer the golden launch pad to high-paying jobs -- or often, any job.

Aside from the elite schools, many are struggling to survive. The tradition that equates a traditional liberal arts bachelor's degree with job opportunity is deeply ingrained. Academics may still be invested in old-school views, but business is telling us the global economy needs a new kind of graduate. It's time to modify curriculums.

It's critical that we shift our basic college curriculum to meet the needs of students graduating into a global economy. Students still need a grounding in liberal arts learning, but they also need a mastery of practical and social skills to engage in today's interconnected world.

A 2011 Pew study of young people in the workforce reported that 46 percent felt they did not receive the education or training necessary to thrive in their field. A new curriculum would have to include communications and public relations, international economics, world affairs, foreign cultures, the basics of building a business and sales. These are the real-world topics today's students must contend with no matter what their field or intended specialization, and they require new thinking and course designs to make them relevant to today's workplace.

Communication, for example -- which includes verbal, listening and presentation skills -- is often ranked most important to business employers and often found most lacking in college graduates. Confidence and purpose in self-expression are indispensable attributes in any profession, and these are teachable skills! Public speaking, clarity in writing, and methods of advocacy and argument should be the curriculum's required "language" courses.

In addition, a citizen of the global economy needs to be taught the interplay of world affairs, foreign cultures and business beyond borders. A new curriculum must produce students with an understanding of economic and political conditions around the world, of changing technologies, of worldwide demographics and ethnicity, of the politics of resources like oil and water. These should be required learning, not electives.

Further, because at some point in their career, students might have to start their own businesses and sell themselves -- as sole proprietors or consultants or executives in a larger business -- the millennial generation needs a working understanding of the essentials of business. Good ideas and enthusiasm won't sustain entrepreneurship. Students must also learn how to brand, market and sell themselves. They also should learn how to sell a product and service. Both of these involve understanding the power of networking, listening to their potential and existing customers, being able to communicate the real benefits and costs of alternatives and building relationships that endure.

The millennial generation in the United States does have the competitive advantage of being able to think laterally and critically. This advantage is not enough to thrive in the new world. Our colleges must commit to providing a curriculum that focuses on the needs of today's global workplace, both for their students as well as their own survival.

Burt Wallerstein is the principal and founder of a global sourcing, marketing and consulting agency and mentors both business start-ups and small businesses.